Giving you control over your words

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I am in the midst of taking what has amounted to an overly large first article for American Street, and attempting to edit it down for publication later today. Though the article is no longer than a good New York Times article, I’ve found that even among those who support the weblogging ‘long form’, there is limit to the number of words they’ll tolerate in one weblog posting. Perhaps this is for the best–less is more. Or as Shakespeare would say:

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.

As soon as the ruthless editing job is finished, I’ll post a link to the finished product. Or two or three.

In the meantime, I’ve also been a busy camper adding two major modifications to my site, both having to do with commentary.

There is an increasing trend lately to turn comments off completely; or only leave them on a brief time. This growing backlash to comments is due, in part, to problems with comment spammers or the hit-and-run Google bashers. However, much is due to the general abusiveness that occurs in comments that seems to be on the rise.

I have found that good, selective moderation mechanisms will help prevent most, if not all, the problems with the random Googler and the comment spammer. Unfortunately, though, this won’t help bring back intelligent and relatively civil discussion. Is turning off comments altogether the answer? What can we do from a technical perspective to deal with the growing hostility in comments?

I have formed a completely unfounded and without any data to back up the validity hypothesis. I think that the very nature of the comment mechanism can lead to some of the hostility.

We want to write in reaction to what a person has said, but we’re given a little bitty box to do it in. This makes it difficult to have a good feel for what we’re saying, even with preview. Then, once posted, we can’t go back and either edit or remove a comment we may come to regret. Whatever else we are, we’re human and humans react. Rather than providing technology built on the assumption of best or formal behavior, provide a mechanism that is built on the assumption of average or typical behavior.

That’s my hypothesis – the mechanisms and environment encourages quick and emotional reactions, and this leads to flamewars. The next step is to test it. Rather than join with others and turn comments off, I decided to experiment with the format. Where these changes will lead, I don’t know. But it will interesting to watch.

The first change I’ve made is added the ability to edit or delete a comment after you’ve made it. The only requirement is that you must do so using the same IP address you used when you made the comment in the first place.

Once you’ve left a comment – and it can be something simple like ‘hello’ to start – you’ll see an option called “Advanced Editing” on the comment author line; clicking this opens up a separate page with a very large comment box and buttons to help with inserting HTML markup into the text. I call this page, the Marius Modification Page named in honor of Marius Coomans who inspired these new modifications.

In the comment edit page, you can edit and re-edit the comment as much as you’d like, or even delete it, if you would prefer. Once deleted, that comment is gone; from the database, as well as the page. I will not keep comments around that others want removed–like some form of digital blackmail that I can bring out again and again to use to beat the person about the head. There’s been enough of this in the past.

(Frankly, I disagree with those that say the Internet is forever. Nothing is forever. Forever implies that nothing ever changes; that which is born never dies. Beauty has at its soul, change. The most brilliant words, the most priceless creations, the most profound thoughts, will fade over time. It may take a thousand, or even a millions years, but they will fade.)

I don’t know what this advanced editing capability will do to weblogging conversations. I think people will like being able to edit their typos; but there’s nothing stopping a person from making volatile remarks that others will respond to, and then they later go back and change or remove these remarks. That’s the risk to this type of experiment.

The second change I’ve made is a little more unique. Instead of just posting a comment, you can now write an entire post: to agree, refute, or even extend the original writing. These ‘counter posts’, as I’ve called them are genuine weblog posts – capable of getting comments and trackbacks, and having their own permalinks. They won’t show up on my front page; instead they’re listed at the bottom of the associated essay, right above the trackbacks and other comments. If there is enough interest in these, eventually these counter posts, and their associated trackbacks and comments will have their own sidebar entry.

The counter post editing page is a full page, with lots of room to write. You can save your work while you’re editing, and preview the page as many times as you want. However, once published, that’s it – no edits on this one. It’s a permanent post and the only way you can edit it again is if I change the state of it for you.

Once published, the counter post connected to whatever original post inspired the writing. When a person clicks on the link for it, the post opens into a separate page no different than any of the regular posts. The author can turn comments on or off; same for trackbacks. People can also reference the URL specifically.

This is one I will monitor, very closely. I would welcome agreement, disagreement, or even an interesting segue –but I won’t welcome sales pitches, ego stroking, or people using this space to get nasty at others. The whole point on this modification is to remove the artificial constraints of the current commenting medium in order to see what this does to the resulting conversations. The modfiication isn’t there to bring out the worst in people.

(Though do feel free to experiment with it in this post – please let me know what breaks.)

None of the code for these is available yet because both options are beta. I am experimenting with different text plugins and may add new features to both modifications. I am also, as a precaution, making nightly backups of my weblog database just in case something goes wrong.

Once tested, debugged, refined, and assured of their security, I’ll release code for both. These are drop-in modifications, and easily implemented in other weblogs.


The counter post functionality has been edited to allow the original author to edit or delete the new post, as long as they reference the post from the same IP address.

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